Bee sensors to further our knowledge of key crop pollinators

CSIRO researchers are tracking honey bees via minute radio sensors in a bid to improve pollination and productivity on farms around Australia. The research will also aid in global efforts to combat colony collapse disorder (CCD), a condition decimating honey-bee populations worldwide.

One of the CSIRO project's sensor-tagged bees goes about its business.

In Hobart, Tasmania, scientists are busy affixing 5,000-odd sensors, each 2.5mm square, to the backs of bees that are then released into the wild. It’s the world’s first study utilising large numbers of insects for environmental monitoring.

"Honey bees play a vital role in the landscape through a free pollination service for agriculture, which various crops rely on to increase yields,” says project leader Dr Paulo de Souza. “A recent CSIRO study showed bee pollination in Faba beans can lead to a productivity increase of 17 per cent.

"Using this technology, we aim to understand the bee’s relationship with its environment. This should help us understand optimal productivity conditions as well as further our knowledge of the cause of colony collapse disorder.”

Monitoring the honey-bees using a technique called 'swarm sensing' will yield vital data that could help combat the global threats of CCC and varroa mite infestation, and will help farmers to better manage these key crop pollinators.

To create the ‘mobile data collectors’ CSIRO researchers refrigerate each bee, sedating it temporarily while a sensor is secured with adhesive. "The sensors appear to have no impact on the bee's ability to fly and carry out its normal duties," de Souza says.

The tiny Radio Frequency Identification sensors work like e-tags on vehicles, recording whenever bees pass specified data loggers, with the information sent remotely to researchers, who will use it to build a detailed 3-D model depicting how the bees move around their environs.

"Bees are social insects that … operate on a very predictable schedule,” says de Souza. “Any change in their behaviour indicates a change in their environment. If we can model their movements … this will help us understand how to maximise their productivity as well as monitor for any biosecurity risks."

It’s hoped that the sensor project will enhance scientific knowledge of bee behaviour and improve farmers’ ability to manage these key pollinators, with consequent increases in crop productivity and profitability.

Dr de Souza is working with the University of Tasmania, beekeepers and fruit-growers state-wide to trial the sensor technology.

The next stage of the project involves reducing the sensor’s size to 1mm square so it can be attached to smaller insects such as fruit flies and mosquitoes.



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